Saturday, December 31, 2005

Just a Normal Neighborhood Restaurant

This post ends out the year. I'd love to end it with a bang, but it doesn't address anything of amazing import or epic significance. Or maybe it does - food.

In this case, the local restaurant, "Ji Lu's Snacks." As I've mentioned before, I don't think I've had a bad meal in Shanghai, but I haven't had many great ones, either. Ji Lu's falls squarely into this good-but-not-great realm.

I still go maybe twice a week, for a few reasons: first, Shanghai is cold, and it's one of the closest restaurants - while most places offer free delivery, I prefer eating out. Secondly, it's cheap, and a complete meal goes for $1.25. Third, eating out in China can be too much of an adventure for me, it's easy just to go for the consistent stand-by.

Even though the place has "Snacks" in the name, the snacks counter usually isn't running. You can order a wide variety of dishes, even relatively fancy foods if such is your desire. However, people looking for a fancy meal probably would be better going elsewhere. Most people just end up getting the rice plates, which vary from $.75 to $1.50. Here's half the menu, if you can read the lingo.

Ordering is a low-key affair - usually you order at the counter and they'll bring the food to you. There's a kitchen in the background. Even when the restaurant isn't very busy there's always three or four cooks who seem to be in continuous motion. They're mostly behind a screen but they glance out and I glance back at them.

This restaurant can be extremely busy at around noon or 6:00, however I often have a late dinner around 7:30 or 8, and there'll usually just be a few other diners - sometimes I'll be the only one.

What's included with the meal is fairly typical: the dish with some rice, some bok choy, an egg hard-boiled in soy sauce, and a bowl of a light soup. A few things are interesting: first, tea isn't drunk with dinner, and the soup provides the liquid for the meal - sometimes you see people drinking beer, but it's not common. Second, even on the coldest days, some of the dishes will be warm, and others served chilled - either the soup or the vegetables.

If you notice the picture, it's Kung Pao Chicken. It's a little not what you'd expect - there's about as many peanuts as pieces of meat. The sauce is sweet, salty, and tangy, with a slight emphasis on the sweet. It's a little oily. Good, even delicious, but nothing you'd write home about.

That is my normal food to eat at this restaurant, although I don't order it anywhere else. Some other foods they serve? Beef Curry, Fried Rice, Salty Fish, etc. Ordering can be a bit of a guess though, because even if you can read the characters, a lot of foods's names are less descriptions and more stories - even "Kung Pao Chicken" literally means "Palace-Blows-Up Chicken Pieces." If you've never had Kung Pao Chicken before, who knows what that means. You have to try everything and remember which ones you like. The waiters and waitresses are all pretty friendly with offering recommendations and advice, though, and Chinese people seem to rely on it just as much as me.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Time is Here Again

It's the Holiday Season, which doesn't have the same meaning in Shanghai. Christmas isn't a popular Chinese Holiday, for completely obvious reasons. While that doesn't come as an intellectual surprise, it still feels strange to me - living in the US, it's easy to associate the time of the year to the Holiday, even if you don't think about it or celebrate it yourself. Now, it comes across so odd, if I step out of my apartment and look around my large apartment complex, I don't see a single green-and-red bunting.

Shanghai does have a very very small Christian population - this historic foreigner church in the downtown isn't open for business anymore, but keeps a few Christmas decorations in front. Christmas Day goes by characters meaning "Saint's Birth Holiday," which seems like a Christ reference, but it sounds kind of like a Chinese pronunciation of Santa, "Shung-dawn". I'm not sure which it comes from, and neither are the people I've talked to about it.

I don't think Christmas registers much with the average lower-class Shanghai resident. However Christmas does have a place as a minor holiday, especially in the wealthier or more Westernized areas. People here don't celebrate it in the Western sense of meeting with their family and giving presents and singing Carols and all that, but some places do try to get a festive Christmas look to them. The first place to put up Christmas decorations, and the only place to play Christmas Carols, has been the Shanghai branches of Western Chains, such as this Starbuck's:

But truth be told, it wasn't so much. Just two or three weeks before Christmas, these foreign chains were about the only place to see evidence of Christmas. Carrefour, a French chain, also had a large selection of Christmas decorations. Even for such a massive store, the Christmas display is pretty large. By contrast, the picture on the left shows the complete selection of Christmas decorations available near my apartment.

I've read that in the US, some retailers make 75% of their revenue in the month before XMas. So the large Chinese malls are quick to get in on that - if perhaps not as quick as the US malls are. While the malls now have very nice XMas displays, they didn't get them up until a week or two before XMas. For instance this massive tree was being put up on December 14th! The woody-looking outside decoration is artfully arranged reindeer antlers, kind of strange.

And while shops and malls aren't dominated by Christmas decorations even now, a lot of the shops do have a Santa Claus here or there, or maybe a tree, ribbons, tinsel, etc. Some stores get into the gimmick more than others - this fruit juice store (which to be honest is much much better than any juice place I knew of in the US) had all their employees wearing Santa hats.

Chinese New Year's happens a month or two after XMas, and so I think Christmas decorations are popular because they're a nice lead-up - I've heard a lot of the XMas decorations will stay until then. Holiday cards are also somewhat popular, maybe you give it to somebody in your office as a nice gesture, during the office Christmas Karaoke Party. Many of the cards are quite beautiful, and on the art-supply street of Fuzhou Lu, you'll see one store after another selling them. Notice that they're dominated by the color red, with some yellow as well - green is not much to be found. It's the Chinese Holiday colors, rather than the Western.

A White Christmas? I've never suffered through one, and won't have to this year either, although it has been extremely cold lately. Anyway I'm not sure on my plans but maybe I'll go to an Indonesian Church with my roommate. Merry XMas to all my family and friends reading this, wish I could be there with y'all! And fly over here for the New Year's - if Shanghai does Christmas only partway, it skips over the Western New Year's completely!

Sunday, December 18, 2005


I'm not sure what to think about Shanghai food. A lot of non-locals, both Chinese and foreigners, are constantly talking bad about it, that it's too sweet and oily. I must agree...but at the same time, I more or less dig it, and I'm still learning what's good and where to go. I won't say it's the world's best cuisine, and I wish you could get international foods without a big price jump, but you won't find me complaining about it, either.

If that sounds equivocal, I want to take a very firm stance about Shanghai street food and snacks: they are the best! I just love them. I'm not much of one for eating snacks normally, but here in Shanghai I'm tempted to skip meals and just dine on a little of this and a little of that.

There's a lot of options to choose from, and Shanghai's specialty is the delicious Xiaolongbao, but one of my favorites is also one of the more pedestrian: manapua! Yes you can get manapua all over Shanghai. I am so happy. For those not in the know, it's a big Hawaiian snack. You could get it in California, but it's few and far between - my favorite was at the Shan Dong Mandarin Restaurant in downtown Oakland.

It's a little different in Shanghai I admit. The Hawaiian version is steamed (or sometimes baked) spongy white bread, surrounding a meat that is usually char siu pork, dyed red. Additionally the bread is often dyed to indicate the insides, I hate that. It goes cheap and you get it as a snack maybe at a shack or a convenience store.

However Char Siu is a Cantonese type of seasoning, and you won't find it here. Instead you order a "fresh meat" baozi. In Shanghai, pork is the default meat, which is pretty much the way it should be! Instead of char siu seasoning, the pork is ground up and seasoned. A lot of gravy is added, to make it extremely juicy.

OK I can't deny it's ugly, but before I hear comparisons to dog food realize that it's not intended to be opened and photographed. Also, the outside is beautiful. Maybe that's a stretch - well, judge for yourself:

Like in Hawai'i, you can often get a manapua at your local convenience store. However I've never done that, they don't look so great and maybe they're old, who can tell. More importantly, it would probably freeze solid in the time it takes me to walk from Family Mart to my apartment! Tangentially, these convenience stores also have other snacks, like eggs boiled in shoyu, very tasty, or chicken hearts on a stick, someday I'll have to build up my courage and give it a try. The normal place to get manapua is from a small street-side stall.

If you notice the stacks of steamers piled on top of each other, it's kind of interesting. Steam comes up from the bottom, and is allowed to rise through all the baskets, which can vary from just a few to a tall stack of six or seven. You'd think by the time the steam makes its way through all the steamers the steam would condense and get the manapua all soggy and gross, but that doesn't happen. Maybe they're eaten too quickly. Anyway, all the steam is incredibly inviting on cold Shanghai winter days, if for no other reason than basking in the warmth. Also check out the guy hand-making these things in the background:

If that doesn't look like a manapua, you're right. These stalls don't just sell pork manapua. Generally they sell vegetable manapua as well, and then other steamed breads are popular, too. Sweet soy milk is also common.

Chinese manapua are a little smaller than a Hawaiian style manapua, but far far cheaper. I'll include a price list from Babi Steamed Breads, a chain that is very common and very good, with the closest branch about a five minute's walk from my apartment. 1 kuai is about twelve cents, so the listed prices of .5 to 1 kuai isn't so bad!

And big ups to my sister, who gets her Master's at UH Manoa later today - and while I'm at it to my cousin, who just started at UH Hilo. Congratulations!

Friday, December 16, 2005

Movie Culture

China's mainland doesn't have the movie culture the United States has. There's various reasons I imagine for this, and while I'd love to talk pages and pages, let's just say that the local movie industry is dominated by imports. Most people I talk to favor movies (and TV dramas) from Korea, with Hong Kong and Hollywood running close behind.

As mentioned before, bootlegs are everywhere to be found, selling for less than a dollar. It's tough to compete with that. I've talked about it some with people, do they ever go out to the theaters? Even though the people I've talked to have been fairly well-to-do, they always say no, it's too expensive. While the price varies, it's around $5-$10, which maybe hits roughly four times as hard in Shanghai as the US. There's only a handful of movie theaters in town - generally attached to upscale malls. Pictured below is the marquee to Peace Cinema, located right across the street from People's Park. It sounds Revolutionary with a capital R, but it's attached to a Taiwanese mall chain, and the lobby shares space with a KFC.

Personally I think mainland Chinese movies are not so great, often coming across as overly self-serious melodramas. Even more annoying is the recent tendency to make big-budget pseudo-artistic kung-fu movies. One just came out called "The Promise." It's gotten a lot of hype, and there's several large posters outside the Raffles Mall Cinema.

Which leads up to another point. Just as in the United States, pop stars are big business, used to promote products. While I haven't yet seen "The Promise," I'm guessing its mythological setting isn't the sort that would allow for either cell phones or compact Nissans. Still, products are being associated to the movie all across town, in a series of posters. This particular poster was seen in the halls of the Subway system, the place in Shanghai you'll see the most advertising.

Hong Kong stars are common in advertisements. To a lesser extent, you'll also see Korean and Taiwanese stars hyping products. One thing you never see in these advertisements is American celebrities. As a guess, that's because the American studios just haven't gotten around to it - some Hollywood movies and stars are extremely popular in Shanghai.

While I like talking the movies with people, one point of confusion is that Hong Kong stars in the US will go by their Cantonese name, often using a made-up English first name. However, in Shanghai they'll go by the Mandarin reading of their name's characters. Andy Lau becomes Andy Liu, Wong Kar Wai becomes Wang Jia Wei, and nobody knows who I'm talking about when I mention Sammi Cheng, pictured on the left as the cover girl to Bazaar magazine.

Some other stars? Andy Lau (to the right) is maybe the only really big male movie star here, and Cecilia Cheung (below, to the left of Harry Potter) is probably the most commonly seen actress - it's worth seeing their "Running on Karma" if you haven't, but I'd have to recommend skipping past their music. Karen Mok is on the cover of "Woman's World", Maggie Cheung did some jewelry advertisements recently, and Carina Lau rolls around on some bedsheets as if she was hopped up on dangerous amounts of Valium, in a line of advertisements I see on the subway car's TV screens.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Like, the Mall

I mentioned earlier about the preponderance of people selling things on the street. OK it's very common, it's fun to photograph, and it sort-of goes along with the whole "slums of shaolin" motif, but I hope I didn't give the wrong impression of the city. Shanghai has a mall culture only a step or two behind California's.

This is most apparent along Nanjing Lu, which is one large mall after the other. I think even a Californian would be surprised at their scale, these are often seven or eight floor monsters. And there's a lot of them - in the picture below, malls and shops keep on going all the way to the Pearl Tower in the distant background, with the brief interruption of the Huangpu River.

The malls extend just as far in the other direction on Nanjing Lu, cutting halfway across the length of Shanghai! However while the large malls basically fit a super-sized version of what you see in the United States, the smaller shops are a little different - they often contain the crowded bustle you associate with Shanghai's side-street markets.

The malls themselves may be one massive department store, or more commonly, a large department store sharing the space with smaller boutique shops. These boutique shops are often European or Japanese clothing labels. American boutique stores aren't as common, but you do see some, such as this Nike chain store. Starbucks is very common in malls, and the New Brands Mall even has two of them, two floors apart. Fast food is also very common at malls.

The malls attract a lot of window-shoppers, but I've heard people don't buy so much at them. Personally I often shop at the malls because the price is set and I'm at such a loss when it comes to bargaining, with no idea what a fair price might be. Regardless, malls try to increase their volume by having discount stores in the basement or on the top floor, or by having food courts. These food courts are often interesting - the "restaurants" are really stalls gathered side by side, you charge a card at the beginning and pick out what you want, the card works anyplace. There's a wide variety of Chinese food to order. Unfortunately it's never all that tasty and there's always somewhere better to eat nearby. It's still a good concept and I made a lot of use of it when I first got to Shanghai - and I guess it fulfills its purpose of getting people to ride a seemingless endless series of escalators through the mall.

There's also a Wal-Mart in Shanghai, although I haven't gone and hear that it's pretty expensive. I instead go to Carrefour, a French chain with three stores in Shanghai. It's huge and you could probably make use of it for every single shopping need, if you really wanted. I'd love to wax eloquent but there's not much to say - imagine Target opening in a 99 Ranch and you've got it!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Cell Phones

This update is about a subject very dear to the heart of Shanghai: Cell Phones. Just as iPods are the conspicuous consumption of choice in the Bay Area, cell phones in Shanghai are for showing off. And I can't help but admit, I've bought into the frenzy. I'm embarassed of my Motorola V188, and wish I was one of the cool kids with an Ericsson Walkman model!

Plan-less cell phones, and other electronics for that matter, are surprisingly expensive in Shanghai - there's a big markup from what they cost in the United States, even though everything's manufactured in China. My phone was on the cheaper end, still costing about $90, whereas the cool-kid Ericsson model costs $400. With the much lower wages and cost of living most people have in China, this price is totally obscene. Perhaps to show it off, people seem to prominently display them on their subway rides.

To be fair, the cell phones are also watches, just like in the US. Also, sending SMS messages is extremely popular over here, even though it can be difficult to do with the Chinese language. First you choose the english reading of the character with your keypad, and then you scroll through the list to choose the correct character. Just one character can be a very large amount of button presses.

Getting a cell phone in the first place was a little difficult for me. The cell phone system here won't work with US cell phones, you need a new one. So you either buy a cell phone with a plan, as in the US, or you buy a cell phone without any plan, then buy a chip that gives it a phone number for another $20 or so. What's cool about that is I didn't even need to write down my name or show ID to get this phone - the policy has since changed, though, to cut down on SMS-spammers and other criminal activities.

If you don't have a plan, you have to buy cards that allow you to charge up the account of the phone, in multiples of 100 RMB (about $12.50). One minute of a local call is 8 cents, one SMS is 1 cent. I bought this card on the left, it has Yao Ming's picture on it, he was a local basketball star before getting big in the NBA. These cards have scratch-off systems like you're playing the lottery. Instead of winning a prize you get a series of numbers, which you enter after calling a special number.

The price for long distance to the US over these is $1/minute! So instead I buy special long distance cards, each can call the US for 40 minutes. The trick is, even though they're also marked at 100 RMB, the price is negotiable. I buy them off the street for $5, although now my roommate can hook me up with the cards for $3.50, he knows somebody. Skype is still five times cheaper, but the quality isn't so great with outgoing calls.

Shanghai is supposedly the biggest cell phone market in Asia, and it shows. There's advertisements everywhere, and everything from the largest department stores to small side-street shops will sell phones, chips, or the various charge cards you use to activate them.